Saturday 1 October 2016

Does having children change you as a person and as a politician?

In the aftermath of the Andrea Leadsom controversy, various politicians give their views to Niamh Horan

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Picture By David Conachy
Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Picture By David Conachy

Kate O'Connell: I had two children by the time I entered politics, and I had my third last October. Having children does not give you a monopoly on caring about the future. In some ways, having children can be a real asset to your political experience - for instance, if you have a child with special needs or developmental difficulties, it can sharpen your focus when legislating regarding others in similar circumstances. In other ways, the logistical nightmare of scheduling the lives of three children, alongside committee meetings and the Dáil schedule for the week, can be an exercise in political/parental gymnastics.

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Now that I'm a TD, I am duty-bound to represent the will of the people who elected me. You make sacrifices as a parent all the time for the good of your kids - and I think, perhaps politics could benefit from that sort of approach.

Kate O'Connell. Pic Tom Burke
Kate O'Connell. Pic Tom Burke

Politics, like parenting, is a vocation. Sometimes it's loud and dirty and you wonder why you ever bothered - and then other days everything goes to plan, you manage to help someone out, and you feel like it was all worthwhile.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor: There is nothing that will ever eclipse the sense of fulfilment I get every day from my two sons, Conor and Steven.

My life changed forever when they came into the world. The love I feel for them never leaves me. They are my greatest achievement. And now blessed with a new grand-daughter, I feel all that love again, even when I look at her photo from afar. Her mother, my beautiful daughter-in-law Maeve, also holds a very special place in my heart.

My boys did not change me in the political sense. What they have done is provided me with support, advice and frankness when required.

Josepha Madigan. Pic Tom Burke
Josepha Madigan. Pic Tom Burke

Josepha Madigan: Having children does not confer any special status on me over a woman who has no children.

I became a mother many years before I became a politician but I believe that every life experience, including having children, shapes your opinions in life.

Maria Bailey: It has changed me for the better as a person firstly, [and] as a politician you continue to grow, adapt, improve and strive to do more.

As a mother, all I want is for my children to be happy, healthy and love life. They have made me appreciate life far more and it has made me far more determined and driven. I suppose it also makes you more focused on issues that will affect the next generation coming through, for example, college fees. And certainly, in my generation, where we are burdened with negative equity and big mortgages with the burden of childcare on top of that, you worry about how you can afford to send your children to college to give them that equal opportunity.

Maria Bailey. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Maria Bailey. Photo: Steve Humphreys

They are the areas you really want to focus on as a parent and a politician.

I know Richard Bruton is trying to tackle the cost of third-level education but I also want to focus on the cost of childcare too, to make it more affordable so that it is worth parents' while to go back to the workplace.

Kevin 'Boxer' Moran: I don't think having children changes your politics. You go into politics, regardless of whether you have children or not, wanting to make the world a better place. Even if you don't have children, you probably grew up in a family where there were children, brothers and sisters for example, and you learned all about what that involves. But no, the only thing that has changed for me is that [with the demands of the job] I don't get to see my children enough. But I went into this job to look out for all walks of life, regardless of whether I have children or not.

Pat Buckley: It's an excellent question. Yes, having children has absolutely changed me- and for the better.

Kevin 'Boxer' Moran. Pic Tom Burke
Kevin 'Boxer' Moran. Pic Tom Burke

You do find strength from your kids and you also go into defence mode because you always want to protect them.

I think you will not be spoken down to when you have kids, you won't take it, because you are setting the marker for them.

It hasn't really changed my politics, though. In Sinn Fein, we are all about social inclusion and equality so I have a duty to fight for better childcare and education anyway - but my kids are an inspiration.

So, actually, yes - having children does change your politics, in a way. You are not just representing yourself anymore, although you never have, but you see the world through your kids' life experiences. For example, is there or is there not a community centre in the local area, and you fight for better education, services... mental health services too, because you see that can affect them too and that service is all about giving the kids information and coping skills because you know they will be coming up against a lot of problems and barriers as they go through life.

Stephen Donnelly: I would refute the argument made in the UK that having children makes you a better politician. Yes, it has made some people better politicians, but so have lots of other life experiences.

Pat Buckley. Pic Tom Burke
Pat Buckley. Pic Tom Burke

On the other side of things, there are many life experiences I don't have anymore that would also make me a better politician. For example, if I didn't have children I would be able to travel more, I would have more time for work, I would have more time to talk to people in my constituency.

But having children, I hope, has made me a better politician in other ways too. You get to see the apparatus of the state as it engages with children. For example, you see the education system first-hand because your children are in it; you are in children's hospitals more too, so in terms of pure experience, it has helped me.

And it has helped me to really understand what Irish childcare costs mean to families and how destructive they are, because you are experiencing them. So you get a better understanding of the state and wider society through how your own children experience it and also how the non-state apparatus, such as childcare, works. But if I didn't have children, it would also mean I would have more time to dedicate to the job. A chunk of my week is spent with my children, and politicians who don't have children probably use part of that time working.

Stephen Donnelly
Stephen Donnelly

For me, as a parent, it also helps me to empathise with parents who need support for their children. During the election campaign, the doors I came away from that made me most upset and angry were after talking to parents who had children with special needs who were on waiting lists for up to five years and who hadn't received the help they need from the State.

For me as a parent, I could feel that anger because you project yourself onto that situation and say what if it was my kids? I need to stress that this comment is purely about me personally, I am in no way suggesting politicians who don't have children can't empathise with parents, I mean that it, purely on a personal level, has helped me myself to empathise better.

Fiona O'Loughlin: I talk about issues that impact mothers and fathers on a regular basis regardless of whether I am a mother or not. Last week, for example, I was debating the cost of third-level education and in the Dail speaking about working families and childcare. So even though I don't have children myself, I don't feel it precludes me from the conversation.

Issues such as childcare costs and education are issues that have a very big impact on society and I feel I have as much understanding as anyone else because a lot of my working life involved children too, through teaching, and in working with people with intellectual disability through Special Olympics.

I also believe I empathise with the challenges parents have as I have 10 younger brothers and sisters and 16 nieces and nephews, as well as friends and neighbours who have children.

I would not like to feel that my voice is worth any less on the issues that impact families than that of a mother.

Fiona O' Loughlin. Pic Tom Burke
Fiona O' Loughlin. Pic Tom Burke

Sunday Independent

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